Why are Jharkhand’s tribals demanding a separate religious code?

Members of Sarna tribe protesting in Jharkhand. | Picture Credit: India TV

The fight for the Sarna Adivasi religious code is quite old. On November 11, 2020, Jharkhand Assembly passed a resolution asking for a separate religion code called the Sarna code for the tribal population. It was sent to the Union government but there has been no progress since.

Sami Ahmad | TwoCircles.net 

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PATNA (BIHAR) — On June 6, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren pinned a tweet raising the issue of the Sarna Adivasi Religious code. He asked, “Why there is no separate religious code for Adivasis when there is one for those who are much less than us in numbers.”

One Twitter user Hansraj Meena replied that India’s 15 crore Adivasis should get their separate religious code. “Now, Adivasis would become neither Hindu nor Christian or Muslim.” Another handle, Tribal Army wrote, “Central government should give the Adivasis their indigenous identity back.”

Another user Nakul Singh Sagwan wrote, “If Adivasis claimed their original religion, the Hindu population would shrink by 11 per cent. The trend to write Adivasis as Hindus must stop.”

Why is this demand important?
As the preparation for the Census of India is expected to start soon, the demand for a separate Adivasi Religious Code has been reiterated in Jharkhand. 

Dr Karma Oraon, the former Dean and professor of Anthropology department, Ranchi University told TwoCircles.net that there are around 86 lakhs Adivasis in Jharkhand but only 3% have their religion registered in the census of 2011 as the other 97% have to tick the ‘Others’ column as Sarna is not a recognised religion. 

The official website of the Jharkhand government states that the population of scheduled tribes was around 26.3% as per census figures of 2001. The total population of Jharkhand was 26,945, 829 and 7,087,068 were from 32 scheduled tribes. 

The fight for the Sarna code is quite old. On November 11, 2020, Jharkhand Assembly passed a resolution asking for a separate religion code called the Sarna code for the tribal population. It was sent to the Union government but there has been no progress since. Documents suggest that prior to the census of 2011, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes also recommended adopting Sarna as a separate religious code. 

Uniqueness of Sarna
Dr Oraon said that there is a sea of differences between a Hindu and an Adivasi. “Adivasis don’t have any concept of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Instead, they have a different name for the Almighty. It is called Dharmesh by Oraons and Singhbonga by Mundas. The congregation of Adivasi nature worship is called Sarna. The place of worship is too referred to as Sarna by Adivasis. Also, Adivasis don’t have a caste hierarchy.”

Prem Sahi Munda is an Adivasi rights activist. He explains Sarna as something very near to nature and independent religion. “We have Pahan Purohit instead of a Brahman Purohit. We have different religious festivals like Sarhul and Karma. Our clan names are based on rivers and trees etc,” he said. 

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s stand
Vijay Kumar Hansda is a member of parliament from Soren’s party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). The party has time and again urged the President of India to submit a demand to include Sarna Adivasi Religion in the coming census. Hansda is the coordinator of the proposed delegation slated to meet the President. 

Talking to TwoCircles.net, Hansda said that they are awaiting a reply from the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the meeting. He had raised this issue in Lok Sabha also but he was told that since different tribes use different deities a Sarna code was not possible. “We are saying that different names of deities do not mean that they cannot be given a uniform code. But the BJP government wants to put the Adivasis in a vague domain. Our demand is genuine but the government is not listening to it.” 

Hansda is pressing hard as he fears that if it’s not completed now, they will have to wait for the next census. He said that though the Bihar government has ordered a state-level caste census, the demand for a separate Sarna code cannot be met at the state level. “We are demanding this for the entire country, not for Jharkhand only,” Hansda added.  

Benefits of the Sarna Code
Without the Sarna code, the Adivasis don’t get identified properly, claims Hansda. “People get confused between Sarna and Sanatana (Hindu). Adivasis are not Hindu. We have a very simple demand that we should be given a separate code which will guarantee our identity. There should be no problem for the central government in arranging this,” he said. 

Professor Oraon said that the resolution was passed after much pressure from the Adivasi rights groups but due process was not followed and it became a tug of political war. 

“If we get a Sarna religious code we could have our own religious trust to save our religious places like the other religious groups have their own trusts,” Prem Sahi Munda said. 

BJP’s reluctance
BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Samir Oraon told TwoCircles.net that BJP’s stand is still not concrete. “Even JMM has no stand. It is just their political gimmick. This is just to instigate people. Even if a Sarna code is provided the facilities will remain the same that are available for tribals. This must be kept in mind as they are getting the benefits as tribals. We are pondering over that but they are playing the sentimental game,” he said. 

On the question of why the BJP is silent on this debate in the Assembly, Samir claimed that their party leader Babu Lal Marandi was not allowed to speak.

Sami Ahmad is a journalist based in Patna, Bihar. He tweets at @samipkb